“Winning is not everything, but wanting to is.”
Once the motto of the late coach Jody Frazier, the saying adorns the entryway to Stanley May Field at Mountain Pine High School. Each week, when the team takes the field, it's reminded of Frazier’s dedication to the program and what it takes to be a winner.
And it’s working.
After forfeiting most of its 2016 campaign due to a lack of players, Mountain Pine returns red-hot in 2017 with a talented 24-player roster—a breath of fresh air for a program that was previously on life support.
"We have a lot of things that have changed for us in a positive way this year," head coach Sam Counce said. "We had a great group of kids move up from junior high that had a good season last year and we have also had a few players move into the district from other schools, too. Although we may not be the most talented team, this is a group that believes in what we are trying to do as a program and they play with accountability."
Since dropping their season opener, 35-0, to rival Jessieville, the Red Devils (3-1, 1-0 7-2A) have surged to three consecutive victories and are quickly gaining attention as the hottest team in Garland County.
"There's a lot of attention on us right now and it's something this school hasn't seen in a long time," senior running back/safety Dafavioun Haywood said. "Everyone has a winning mindset right now. We're all on the same page this year and we believe we can do big things. We're all pushing each other to play as well as we can to show the world what we can do."
Reminiscent of its teams of old, Mountain Pine has found strength in its running game. Led by senior backs Haywood (37 carries for 438 yards and six touchdowns) and Devon Washington (28 carries for 148 yards and two touchdowns), junior back Elijah Browning (14 carries for 154 yards and three touchdowns) and sophomore quarterback Collin Smith (23 carries for 214 yards and two touchdowns) the Red Devils aren’t just winning games, they’re winning big.
"As coaches, we've put in a lot of time figuring out what works best for these kids and their abilities," Counce said. "The kids have bought into it and like what we are doing. We have strong, quick running backs, a great offensive line and Collin Smith has done a great job leading our offense at quarterback. On and off the field, the mood here is good. The players are excited to come to practice every day. That means a lot to us right now, especially as we approach the fifth game of the year. If you're not playing for something, it's not a lot of fun, but we're having fun right now."
Complementing Mountain Pine's fiery offense is a salty defense, which has snagged seven interceptions and has allowed just 12.6 points per contest during the winning streak. Senior linebacker Carter Chapman leads the defense, racking up 35 tackles through four games.
"Everyone is doing their jobs and filling the gaps," Chapman said. "The key is keeping each other motivated and keeping my teammates going. Although we're winning, we can't let our heads get too big. We're confident, but still working hard each week to get better."
In just four weeks, the Red Devils have already won as many games as the previous six seasons combined and are on track for their first playoff appearance since 2010 and first winning season since 2009.
"In the hallways this week, everyone is talking about Mountain Pine football," senior slotback/linebacker Chad Graves said. "In the community, everyone's talking about how great we're playing. All week long, we've been working hard in practice and in the classroom. We're looking forward to keeping the ball rolling and winning more football games."
"We're taking each game one at a time," Counce said. "On paper, teams like [reigning Class 2A state champion] Mount Ida and Foreman look like the teams to beat, but we don't play games on paper. Any week, we have an opportunity to be successful, no matter who the opponent is. Hopefully we can mix in there with the teams at the top of the conference."
This week, on homecoming, the Red Devils face off against Mineral Springs—the team’s last playoff opponent—in search of their fourth-consecutive win.
"Mineral Springs throws the ball 75-percent of the time, so it will be a big test for our secondary and linebackers," Counce said. "If we can get to their quarterback and make him throw off his heels, we'll be in good shape. On offense, we're going to focus on what we do best—running the football. We have to keep the ball out of their hands. They're a team that can score at any minute and capable of making big plays. Our kids know that big plays will happen—but it's how we react that will make or break the game. "
Though the team has tasted success, the Red Devils will be the first to tell you that they haven't forgotten where they've been.
"Some of our seniors had the opportunity to play for Coach Frazier," offensive coordinator Joey Alderman said. "They went through those tough times together, but Coach Frazier still showed those kids how you still show up to work every single day, even when things are tough. Adversity is going to hit you in the mouth. When it does, you show up, do your job and continue to do what you have to do."
"I coached with Coach Frazier for 15 years," defensive coordinator Terry Blees said. "He went through many trials in his life but kept coming here every day for the kids. His motto about wanting to win is the most important thing he could teach these kids. As long as they take that with them, his legacy lives on."
Mountain Pine’s success on the field goes beyond football. It’s another puzzle piece in the revitalization of a once-thriving community. In May, two Mountain Pine alumni, Morgan Wiles and Shaun Keefe, purchased the 389-acre site in which lumber giant Weyerhaeuser once stood. Together, the Red Devil graduates are working to transform the vacant lot into The Pines Industrial Park and look to bring manufacturing and retail jobs back to the community of fewer than 800 residents.
"Football is the core of any community in small-town Arkansas," Counce said. "Having success on the football field creates as much conversation as the growing new industry around us. When you have people coming back to support their school and community, that's big for a small town like Mountain Pine."
Mountain Pine plays host to Mineral Springs at 7 p.m. Friday.
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